White­caps find plenty to love about Ka­mara

White­caps’ ‘ breath of fresh air’ fought big­gest bat­tle com­ing to North Amer­ica

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - ED WILLES

This one should be easy to write.

Kei Ka­mara was 16 when he ar­rived in the U.S. from his wartorn home­land of Sierra Leone. To that point in his young life, he hadn’t re­ally played or­ga­nized soc­cer, but in short or­der he be­came a high-school star in the Los An­ge­les area, a col­lege star at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity, Dominguez Hills, then an elite striker in MLS, where he’s off to a fast start with the White­caps this sea­son.

He’s also charis­matic and quotable and talks freely about his his­tory and the forces that shaped him. And he’s in­volved in sev­eral char­i­ta­ble ini­tia­tives in Sierra Leone.

I mean, talk about putting it on a tee. A first-year jour­nal­ism school stu­dent should be able to han­dle this one. Lead with an anec­dote. Tran­si­tion to a quote from Ka­mara. Segue to coach Carl Robin­son’s thoughts about the source of his play­ers’ men­tal tough­ness and re­siliency, then tie it all to­gether with a poignant end­ing.

Easy-peasy, right?

Then why do you stare at the screen, know­ing you can’t pos­si­bly do ser­vice to Ka­mara’s story, that any­thing you write off a 10-minute in­ter­view will feel trite and in­ad­e­quate, that this de­serves more than 850 words in the Daily Bu­gle?

Put it this way. Grow­ing up, Ka­mara’s chal­lenges weren’t mak­ing the team or fight­ing through in­juries or coaches who didn’t be­lieve he was good enough. It was es­cap­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary United Front and the life of a child sol­dier. It was wit­ness­ing sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions and as­sas­si­na­tions and won­der­ing if your turn was next. It was flee­ing Sierra Leone in his early teens, land­ing in Gam­bia, then cash­ing his win­ning lot­tery ticket — a refugee visa to the U.S. be­cause his mother had lit­er­ally won en­trance to the states a decade ear­lier through a pro­gram that no longer ex­ists.

“It’s made me who I am to­day, the man I am, the player I am,” Ka­mara said on Tues­day af­ter White­caps train­ing. “I owe ev­ery­thing to where I came from.

“We grew up faster than nor­mal kids. We had to be aware of what was around us and where the dan­ger was. When we moved to the states, it was the great­est op­por­tu­nity ever and I could not let that slip by. I used that to achieve ev­ery­thing you could achieve as a refugee.”

And to think we some­times take what we have for granted.

Ka­mara, now a mar­ried 33-year-old fa­ther of two tod­dlers, has been the driv­ing force be­hind the Caps’ fast start to the sea­son with a goal in each of their vic­to­ries and the pri­mary as­sist on Brek Shea’s win­ner in Hous­ton on Satur­day. Robin­son, a long­time fan, brought in the lanky striker this off-sea­son largely be­cause his goal-scorer’s pedi­gree out­weighed con­cerns over his age and pen­chant for drama.

Two games in, Ka­mara looks like found money for the White­caps, but in this, as in all things, stay tuned.

“I’d say 70 or 80 per cent of the peo­ple told me to stay away from him be­cause he’s a char­ac­ter,” Robin­son said. “But I love char­ac­ters. I know Kei. I know peo­ple who know Kei. Those were the peo­ple I talked to. I love him to bits.

He’s been a breath of fresh air since he came here. The coaches love him. The play­ers love him. I think I can pro­long his ca­reer, but it’s im­por­tant to man­age him cor­rectly.”

Ka­mara, in fact, has fit seam­lessly into the White­caps’ locker-room, which is in­ter­est­ing be­cause he ar­rived from his pre­vi­ous stop in New Eng­land with a high-main­te­nance tag. With the Caps, how­ever, he’s al­ready es­tab­lished him­self as a team leader, an in­de­fati­ga­ble worker and a men­tor for young play­ers like Alphonso Davies, whose own story is sim­i­lar to Ka­mara’s.

“Kei’s a loud per­son,” said team cap­tain Kendall Was­ton. “He brings a lot of smiles in each of us. At the same time, he works hard. I think he’s the old­est guy here, but he’s al­ways run­ning first in train­ing.”

Was­ton was asked to de­scribe Ka­mara as a player.

“He’s go­ing to bring goals,” he said.

“Maybe you don’t see him, but all of a sud­den, boom.”

He’s now been go­ing boom for 11 MLS sea­sons and over that time the young thor­ough­bred has given way to the wise old head. A cou­ple of months ago, he also took his wife Kristin, daugh­ter Kierin and son Ken­drick to Sierra Leone for the first time. Ka­mara him­self has been back many times and in 2012 es­tab­lished the Heart Shaped Hands Foun­da­tion (that’s where his goal cel­e­bra­tion comes from) to pro­vide ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents in his West African home­land.

Ka­mara was asked about the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate in the U.S. Eigh­teen years ago, he ar­rived as a refugee from a Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­try, built a life and now helps oth­ers. He might not have been able to build that life in the U.S. to­day.

“I’ve al­ways been open about this,” he said. “Life is about peace and giv­ing op­por­tu­nity to peo­ple and kids need op­por­tu­nity. When they’re given op­por­tu­nity, they can achieve any­thing. So can we open doors for more kids? That’s my vi­sion.”

And be­cause of ev­ery­thing he’s been through, that vi­sion comes to him with clar­ity and pur­pose.

We grew up faster than nor­mal kids. We had to be aware of what was around us and where the dan­ger was.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS/FILES

Kei Ka­mara has al­ready made his pres­ence known on and off the pitch with the White­caps, serv­ing as a men­tor to the team’s younger play­ers, while scor­ing twice and adding an as­sist in two MLS matches, in­clud­ing Satur­day’s 2-1 win over Dar­win Ceren and the Dy­namo.

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